My Word of Mouth Marketing Manifesto

#1  #2.0  #WOMMA 

I've just returned from the WOMMA summit in Washington D.C, and let's just say it inspired me. A lot. So much so that whilst sitting in Reagan airport waiting for my flight back to Montreal, I couldn't help but start to type like a maniac about what everything I took in.

In today's online world it's easy to forget that in the old days of marketing, back when people didn't have virtual worlds like Second Life, or the internet, or email, or forums, chatrooms, etc. Instead they just relied on good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. If a product worked, it would spread the traditional way - people would talk about it. So I can't help but think it's ironic that today there are so many ways people can connect with one another, yet word-of-mouth marketing isn't getting quite the recognition it deserves. In my mind it's poised to make a strong comeback, and in my mini essay below, ferociously typed while sipping a coffee, there are many reasons why.

The [company X] WOM Manifesto:How word of mouth marketing tactics can benefit [company X], and what we have to do now and tomorrow to create and sustain a healthy and advocate-rich customer base. Customers are fast becoming the wielders of power in today's marketplace. YouTube, Flickr and are just a few examples of the power of user-generated content. Blogs are putting anyone with a voice on the map, large or small, and they're being armed with soapbox and a megaphone. To put it into perspective, 55 million bloggers are currently 'armed', and 100,000 more are every day (Technorati, 2006). It's these people that have the power and capabilities to push an 'OK' product to its tipping point, where it becomes the product. As we've all noticed, things in the online world can easily accrete (read: YouTube being bought for $1.65B within a year of its inception), and just as easily dissipate into just another product that no one remembers (read: soon to be Second Life).nnIt's making the thing start in the first place that's the challenge. At the conference I received a book in the good bag entitled 'Pyro Marketing', and the analogy is perfect. It's the dream to have the product sell itself, to light the fire with just one match, and it is possible. Something referred by a friend or colleague rather than a TV commercial is approximately 1000x more powerful than a simple ad or movie poster. 'Go see that new movie, it's fantastic and you'll love it' is a phrase we've all heard, and likely a referral we've all heeded. Even though TV commercials for that very same movie bend over backwards trying to mimic that 'go see it' buzz and noise, (think "Rolling Stone says this movie is out of this world, spell-binding, mesmerizing, Roger and Ebert give it 4 stars...") nothing can come close to what happens when a close friend tells you it's the best thing you'll see this year.

Word of Mouth is one of the strongest and most effective ways to market and promote a product. People just don't trust TV and banner ads, subway ads, movie trailers and print ads anymore. We're all more savvy than we were 5 years ago, and we'll only get better at wading through the crap. Look at how product placement is increasing in movies like the new James Bond (Omega, Aston Martin, etc). Why? TiVo, YouTube, and iTunes are killing the TV commercial. It's all on-demand now, it's all accessible when you want it, without the fat. We're all more savvy and we're all starting to see that we can all have a soapbox if we want; we can all go find someone who has the same interests as us, the same tastes, and listen to them, not NBC or ABC or CTV.

With this new power, customers just like you and me are able to cut and slice through the 3000 advertising messages we get a day, and focus, and change, and have a voice about the things we care about. We're no longer captive audiences who sit in front of a glowing box and get bombarded by push marketing and advertising... now the shoe is on the other foot. We'll watch what we want when we want, we'll fast-forward what we want, download what we want. And if we don't like it, we'll find a way to get around (just think back to pop-ups). This is the new media - the new marketing landscape that, in all honesty, we as marketers all have to get used to. We have to start to learn how to leverage it, not waste time being fearful or hesitant to try it out, otherwise we risk letting our customers, be it in the tens, the thousands, or more, just slip through our fingers.nnSo, what's the main thing about word of mouth marketing that I've learned since attending the WOMMA conference?

It's all about the customer.nnThe term 'viral' still applies, but it's an increasingly dated catchphrase that represents only a tiny portion of WOM (Word Of Mouth). There's a massive foundation to build first, like a really solid house, before anything comes even close to going 'viral' by itself.

Today's internet user and customer are, as mentioned, more savvy. They're a different breed (and this includes from Baby Boomers to Gen X, it's overwhelming to start thinking of the 'millenial generation' and their kids...) and they're becoming so powerful as a virtual community that they're no longer faceless wallets with 2 ears but no voice. They have a voice, and they should be encouraged to use it - for positive and/or negative commenting.

People want to talk about things - we're social by nature, and we like to talk about things that make us happy, or things that are fun, or neat, cool, interesting, funky etc. More and more we're being equipped with tools and in some cases weapons (Digg, blogs, MySpace to name a few) to show to the world and who ever is listening exactly what we think of all those things.

The customer is the marketer.

'The medium is the message' but... the internet killed the Television star.

It's becoming a reality. In some cases, the internet user/customer has more power than some traditional marketing departments - and doesn't necessarily know it. In some cases, teens between 14 and 19 actually have more power than companies with marketing budgets in the millions of dollars. Half the time they know, the other half they don't. But does it matter? The concept here is that the customer, this everyday guy or girl with access to the web, access to email, access to a blog (their own or someone else's) can talk about something they want to talk about, and in effect market that product for yay or nay. If they hate it, they'll say it, and if they love it, they'll say that too. In fact, 1 person is likely to tell 5 people about something they're happy about/pleased with, whereas they'll tell 10 people if they're dissatisfied and unhappy. Whichever direction the customer takes, it's still marketing something - and marketing to people and future customers or advocates or ambassadors that traditional marketing departments might not be able to touch. By letting the customer freely market a product or service that they feel good and passionate about, new media-embracing companies can in effect sit back and watch a snowball grow, or a new universe be born!

So, what do we do, as marketers?

We embrace it. Not, by any means fear it and walk away. This is not the end-all be-all of marketing, far from it. Traditional marketing does and will continue to exist, and will play a major role in creating influencers indirectly, simply by (for example) getting more eyeballs to a new product or brand. Awareness is the first step to finding people who want to talk more about a product or service, know as early-adopters and influencers.

But, at least from a [company X] standpoint, there's a lot of work to be done. Companies have to start putting their existing customers first. And by first I don't mean 'yeah, they're #1... so what'. I mean start to rethink the way their entire customer service, support, marketing, and sales groups interact with customers. Companies have to begin believing in actually putting the customer on such a pedestal that they WANT to go and talk about it. The companies today that do put the customer at #1 against all odds are the companies that have self-perpetuating advocates that simply want to 'do good' and tell their friends and family about a good product with great service. It all starts with customer service treating the customer like a human being, not a ticket or a phone call, or a job.

Edit: Added late December, 2006

So what are just some ideas a company can do to start the process of word-of-mouth?

  • Rejig all customer interaction points, with the sole intention of delivering the best possible service to your customer
  • Employ a news watcher or news aggregrator (via RSS is a good way) to watch any and all mentions of your company. In today's world of blogs, if a customer is unhappy and blogs, chances are they'll talk about it. If you find an unhappy post, comment - show them that you're willing to take the time to solve their individual problem, and offer solutions
  • If budget permits, consider meeting your 'star' customers. Have you CS team identify those people that are the happiest and most vocal (are rare but effective mix) and invite them to lunch next time you're in their town. Get to know them and their issues, likes and dislikes of your products, services, etc.
  • At all times, start to embrace the power of 'Web 2.0' technology. Give your customers the opportunity to blog about you, to talk about you, to send your product or service to their friends. On the things that are worth forwarding, add a 'forward this to 5 colleagues' link. You won't be sorry.
  • Blog. Show your customers, even the most passive ones that you're more than a company. You're individuals within a company all sharing a goal of making your customers' experience a better one. Also, enable posting on your blog, so your visitors can feel free to share their thoughts and experiences. Even negative comments are good - they give you the opportunity to solve a problem in front of a larger audience.
  • Get people in your company believing in what WOM is and what it can do. There's no point in being an island. Having internal advocates of WOM will result in having external advocates of your product.
  • Have fun, and enjoy yourself - your customers will pick up on it and enjoy themselves too. Old companies are used to being uptight and strict. Get with the times - new web start-ups are throwing off that thick skin and becoming friendlier. It's not a coincidence - they realize that by speaking to customers like they're peers, not wallets, they're getting somewhere.

Happy WOMing!

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